Paul’s Big, Wild, Loving, Punch in Gut Letter to the Corinthians
“I do not want to appear to be frightening you with my letters…” – 2 Corinthians 10:9
Lesson One: The Big Picture
Suppose you overheard a conversation about a big church in a major city that was having problems with divisions in their fellowship rooted in the powerful preachers they preferred, the place of spiritual gifts, how women were supposed to function in ministry, marriage, divorce, and celibacy, the way the wealthy handled the poor, and whether or not they were being too accommodating to the prevailing culture on everything from sexuality to other religions.
What if I told you that big church in a major city was not in Nashville or New York or London but was in Corinth, and the problems are theirs, from over 2000 years ago?
The old proverb, ‘The more things change, the more things stay the same’ is never more true than when it comes to the Church, ancient and new. It turns out that many of the problems our ancestors in the Faith wrestled with are exactly the same issues we struggle with today.
Paul wrote this letter to the church at Corinth to help them with these issues, and God the Holy Spirit inspired him to do so. God knew those ancient problems would plague the Church down through the ages, so this letter is here in the New Testament as God’s own word to help us today, just as it no doubt helped the Corinthians long ago.
Many centuries before Jesus, the city-state of Corinth in the Greek peninsula eclipsed Athens in prominence as a place of wealth and power. The collapse of the Greek Empire before the Romans devastated Corinth in 146 BC. It was rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 44BC, swelling its population to 80,000, with 20,000 more in the surrounding region; let’s think of ‘Great Metropolitan Corinth’ as about 100,000 people, and by Paul’s day the wealthiest city in Greece and its greatest multicultural urban center for art, religion, and education. It had an amphitheater that held 18,000 and a performing arts center that held 3,000. Because it was on an isthmus – a small strip of land between two large bodies of water, it was a major port city. Boats were dragged across the isthmus from one side to the next in order to avoid sailing the long and dangerous distance around the Greek coastline.
Corinth was also home to the Temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual love. It housed 1000 Temple prostitutes, and ‘Corinthianizing’ was a common term in the ancient world for sexual relations with a prostitute, whether male or female.
There were other Temples too, in Corinth and nearby. The Oracle of Delphi, where prophetesses spoke in unknown words that had to be interpreted by the priests to give worshippers direction; the Temple of Ascelpius, the god of healing; and the Temple to Isis, the Egyptian god of seamen, were all prominent in and around Corinth.
There was a synagogue in Corinth, testament to a Jewish community, part of the dispersion from Jerusalem. It is here that the first preaching of the Gospel will take place, sometime around 51-52 of the first century.
The Church in Corinth
The story of the planting of the Christian Church in Corinth is recorded in Acts 18:1-17
The Missionary Journey of Paul
The hospitality of Aquila and Priscilla
In Corinth because of the banishment of the Jews from Rome by Claudius
Jewish and Gentile Responses
Paul’s lengthy stay encouraged by Christ’s appearance to him in a dream
Date and Circumstances of the Letter
Acts 18 tells us that some of the Jewish leaders attempted to have Paul imprisoned by bringing charges against him before Gallio, the Roman Governor of the province. Roman historians note that Gallio’s tenure was brief, from the summer of AD 51 to the summer of AD 52. That puts Paul in Corinth at the time.
Paul’s next major stopping point for a lengthy stay in ministry was in Ephesus, close to the beginning of his third apostolic mission (Acts 19:10-22), about a year after leaving Corinth. He stayed in Ephesus for between two to three years and 1 Corinthians 16:5-9 indicates he wrote this letter in the last few months of his mission there. It even says it was just prior to Passover, so probably sometime in April or May. That means Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in the Spring of 54 or 55 AD.
But why did he write it?
The short answer is that Paul had two major reasons for writing this letter.
The first reason: Troubling Reports he was hearing about the Church – 1 1:10-17
Paul will enlarge the scope of his concerns, noting not only divisions but their apparent lack of church discipline, laxness about sexual immorality, misunderstandings about ‘judgment’, and improper attitudes towards himself. He will quote Corinthian ‘slogans’ back to them, and refute their false ideas with a bold and beautiful Gospel-centered message.
The second reason: Responding to Correspondence from the Church that was filled with questions they had about the right ordering of their church – 1 Corinthians 7:1
The phrase ‘now concerning’ is repeated from chapter 7 onwards as Paul picks up the issues in the Corinthian’s letter to him.
7:1- Relationships between men and women
7:25 – Unmarried and Widows
8:1 – Food sacrificed to idols
12:1 – Spiritual Gifts
15:1 – Resurrection of the Dead (Slightly different wording, but the same approach)
16:1 – The Offering for the poor in Jerusalem
16:12 – The work of Apollos
The Heart of the Issue
One of the matters we have to face is the pride of the Corinthian congregation. Paul notes this as the root issue of the problems they were experiencing. He does this through creative use of sarcasm, quoting their thoughts back to them and then undermining their arrogance.
While this is implied in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 (God chooses the foolish, not the wise, the weak, not the strong), it is most clearly stated in 1 Corinthians 4:1-21.
4:1-5 – The arrogance of the Corinthians judging Paul
4:6-7 – The arrogant ingratitude of the Corinthians
4:8 – The arrogant assertion of the Corinthians (We are Kings! We are Rich!)
4:8b-13 – Paul’s devastating demolition of their arrogant assertion (“I wish you were that powerful! Hey, that would be great and we’d get up on throne with you. The truth is, you sorry bunch of boastful ninnies, that you’re completely deluded about reality)
4:14-21 – Paul’s loving but firm warning to the arrogant (You think I’m not going to come back there? Oh, I’m coming. Dad will soon be home. Then we’ll see how arrogant you are with all of your silly talk!).
Paul also uses the ‘slogans’ of the Corinthians to refute their arrogant waywardness. This is especially seen in 1 Corinthians 6:12-13
The Corinthians: “All things are Lawful!”
Paul: “Not all things are profitable.”
Corinthians: “All things are lawful for me.”
Paul: “But I will not be dominated by anything.”
Corinthians: “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.”
Paul: “And God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”
Paul’s Apostolic Heart
We should bear in mind that Paul is not writing in anger but in love, and with tears. He wrote later about how painful it was for him to write 1 Corinthians –
For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you with many tears; not so that you would be made sorrowful, but that you might know the love which I have especially for you.
– 2 Corinthians 2:4
And even in 1 Corinthians he writes that his letter was not written to bring shame but to bring loving correction, as a father corrects his children –
I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For if you were to have countless tutors in Christ, yet you would not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I exhort you, be imitators of me.
– 1 Corinthians 4:14-16
Finally, we should note that what we call ‘1 Corinthians’ is actually Paul’s second letter (at least) to this church. He notes an earlier letter in 1 Corinthians 5:9, and now writes to clarify what they misunderstood in that earlier missive.
It would be wonderful to think that the Corinthians ‘got it together’ as a result of this strong letter from Paul. In some ways they did do so, as Paul himself writes in 2 Corinthians 2:5-11. Later Christian leaders praised the Corinthians for their strong witness to Christ and good order, but the problem of division persisted in this church. It became the main issue addressed by Clement, Bishop of Rome, writing to them in AD 95.
“You are fond of contention, brethren, and full of zeal about things which do not pertain to salvation. Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit”, Clement wrote. He continued by urging them to go back and read Paul’s letter to them, and in paying attention to it, regain a firm footing in the Gospel and return to the good order of a Church that bears the Name of Jesus: “Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas, and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you. But that inclination for one above another entailed less guilt upon you, inasmuch as your partialities were then shown towards apostles, already of high reputation, and towards a man whom they had approved. But now reflect who those are that have perverted you, and lessened the renown of your far-famed brotherly love. It is disgraceful, beloved, yea, highly disgraceful, and unworthy of your Christian profession, that such a thing should be heard of as that the most steadfast and ancient church of the Corinthians should, on account of one or two persons, engage in sedition against its presbyters. And this rumor has reached not only us but those also who are unconnected with us; so that, through your infatuation, the name of the Lord is blasphemed, while danger is also brought upon yourselves.”
I think this final word from Clement dating back to AD 95 is a good word for us too. We should also take up Paul’s letter and study it afresh. We too face the sinful problem of arrogance and the divisive fruit that springs from it. Bearing this in mind, let’s pray that God uses our study of 1 Corinthians to demolish our pride, root us in the Gospel of the Cross, clarify our understanding of difficult issues, grow us in love, and strengthen our faith in Christ and hope for his coming.
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